Spring 1643 was when the war in Ireland really came back to life. We’ve already looked at the operations around Galway which stretched into that summer, but now we’re going to skip back to March to discuss the next major campaign that was fought in the Confederate Wars.
The winter and early months of 1643 had seen the conflict devolve into the typical low level attrition battles that characterised Irish warfare for so much of the islands history. Cattle raids, attacks on farms and the targeting of civilians, all in an effort to damage the enemies supply lines and resources, was the way the war was fought, as both sides waited for the weather to improve so that actual armies could take to the roads again.
The English side had further problems. Charles, fighting a difficult struggle in England, was already starting to look across the sea to Ireland, and the scores of Irishmen in Confederate armies insisting they were still loyal to him, with some desire. Manpower was going to be a very serious issue in the Civil Wars, and as time went on the English King became more and more open to the idea of a negotiation with the rebel leadership, so that he could add their substantial forces to his own.
The English side in Ireland was already riven with discord. They had managed to work together, to a point, so far in the conflict, but there was no united front in Dublin. Most of the Pale administration of the day seemed to side with the Parliamentarians in the conflict that was engulfing their homeland, but there were still plenty of royalists, chief among them being James Butler, the Earl of Ormonde. Despite attempts by leading Parliamentarians in Dublin to supplant his position, Ormonde remained at the head of the army that Spring, a position given to him by Charles, by far the most notable and powerful of the Irish royalists.
Some action was required though, lest he lose his position through claims of incompetence and dallying with the enemy. There were already suspicions that Charles was seeking a rapprochement with the Confederates, and the lack of funding being sent was damaging Dublin’s ability to recruit an army and keep it in place. Before a disintegration occurred, Dublin would have been hoping that the Confederates could be defeated outright, especially in their heartland of Leinster.
The coming campaign would be the first real test for Thomas Preston, the veteran of Spanish service who had been appointed by the Kilkenny Confederate government as the regional commander in Leinster. He had spent his time since the Kilkenny meeting recruiting and training the various militias in Leinster into a proper army, and then using them in a limited fashion, seizing several small castles and other strongholds in the midlands in an attempt to draw James Butler and his army out, so that he could engage them on favourable terms. These limited campaigns brought success, not least the capture of Birr in January 1643, as small garrisons were typically overwhelmed by the deployment of artillery.
There was plenty of reason for James to take the bait. A sharp thrust into south Leinster, where so many rebel bases were located, could have a great effect for the overall war effort. Kilkenny could be threatened, further coastal areas secured, Confederate privateers strangled in their operations, Dublin further protected from the possibility of a Confederate attack. There were plenty of supplies to be found in the area that could be used to feed the English armies, and a campaign could help deflect the rising tide of desertion. But more than that, Butler would have wanted a direct engagement with Preston’s force, so that his better trained, more experienced troops would have a chance to destroy the Confederate presence in Leinster directly.
Leaving Dublin with his army in the early days of March, Ormonde decided to make a march towards the port town of New Ross, located at the mouth of the Barrow River, a major trading post whose capture would severely damage rebel supply lines in both Wexford and Waterford. His army was substantial enough, with 3’000 infantry, several hundred cavalry, and a well sized artillery train. Upon his march, Preston rapidly started to assemble the militias into a single cohesive force, fearful of the damage Ormonde would be capable of doing.
After a number of small skirmishes typical of the era, the first major stop for Ormonde was the town of Timolin in south Kildare, whose small castle was defended by a minuscule force of rebels. Facing an artillery barrage, they could not hope to hold out, and when they surrendered it is reported that they were all butchered. But they managed to hold up Ormonde and his army for a time, allowing better defences to be thrown up around New Ross, and for more men to be sent to its defence by the Supreme Council of the Confederates and Preston.
Ormonde pressed on as soon as he could, coming to the outskirts of his objective, which the Confederates had known must have been his target, on the 11th of March. One source alleges that the vanguard of the English army arrived to see the gates open, having been mistaken for Preston’s troops, but lacked the manpower to seize and hold them until the rest of the force came up. It is possible that this event is a fabrication by witnesses bent on portraying Ormonde in as bad a light as they could, since it seems so unlikely.
Having had a call for surrender refused, Ormonde commenced a barrage of the towns meagre defences, which consisted of little more than some basic walls and an earth rampart. Breaches were made and assaults ordered, but the English, facing a force that seems to have been a mix of Preston’s militia and the New Ross townspeople, were held off. Due to the unique geographical position of New Ross over the River Barrow, Ormonde was unable to invest the town completely, and so Confederate reinforcements were able to trickle in to aid in the defence. As well as that, the weather turned miserable, with constant rainfall weighing down on English morale and gunpowder supplies. Further, Ormonde lacked sufficient gear for siege work, such as ladders of the required length, and promises by the Dublin government to keep him supplied by sea were not kept, possibly from a desire to see Ormonde discredited and stripped of his position.
Ormonde received a strange boon during the next stage, when two English ships laid anchor close by the town and opened fire with their own cannon. A disaster appeared to have occurred when the townsfolk of New Ross, using some light artillery pieces, managed to hit and damage the ships shortly after their arrival, to the extent that they had to be abandoned. But most of the crew survived and were absorbed into Ormonde’s army, with sections of them proving to be of critical importance in the days ahead.
After six days, Ormonde’s position was becoming untenable. A quick assault of the town had not worked out, the absence of the supplies damaged the upkeep process of his army even more and then he heard word that Preston and his lieutenants had organised their own army and were close by, stationed at the town of Old Ross. Unwilling to be caught between the Leinster Army and the defences of New Ross and already suffering from some raids, Ormonde withdrew, choosing to cut his losses and head back to Dublin rather than risk an engagement with a numerically superior foe in his condition.
Preston could have simply let Ormonde pass unmolested and have claimed a victory of sorts. The English would have failed to take the objective of the campaign, would have lost more men than the rebels throughout, and would only have reduced their overall stockpiles of food and powder for no gain. Ormonde’s return to Dublin without a victory would have exacerbated the conflict there, leaving the English even more riven. At least one of Ormonde’s lieutenants, writing afterwards, indicating that a simple harassment of the retreating army could have paid huge dividends, as the English had barely enough supplies to last four days.
But Preston could not pass up the opportunity that he was presented with, nor perhaps, forget the dead at Timolin. Ormonde’s route back to Dublin went more or less the same way he had come, but on the advice of some local sympathisers, he decided to change his route as he came close to the town of Old Ross, doubling back to seek an easier road. On the 18th March, this led him right into the path of Preston’s advancing army, a few miles north of Old Ross, near the village of Ballinvegga. The English were somewhat surprised by the sudden appearance of Preston’s army to the right of their marching route, but were able to march on to a better spot than the hilly area where they first caught sight of the Leinster army, whereby Ormonde ordered his men to turn and prepare for battle. Preston now blocked Ormonde’s intended route, so a battle was inevitable, but for whatever reason the Irish commander hesitated to attack upon first sighting the enemy army. Perhaps he just wasn’t ready, and was unable to compensate for what may have been an unexpected turn of movement from Ormonde, but the delay was crucial.
Ormonde was able to set his force up on a hill west of Ballinvegga, facing Preston’s army to the north, across the small river of Aughennacrew. It was little more than a stream, but the nearest fording point was narrow enough. Some English witnesses claim that Preston had brought over 10’000 men with him, but this is probably an exaggeration. Ormonde was outnumbered, but it was more likely a difference of around two to one, with the Irish numbering around 6’000, including cavalry and some small amount of artillery.
Ormonde, noticing a small rise in between the two armies, knew that the seizure of this small bit of high ground would be critical, and ordered his chief lieutenant, Sir Francis Willoughby (possibly a relation of the Willoughby who held the Forthill position in Galway) to move forward a detachment of troops in take it. Willoughby saw the possibility of using the hill as a point from which to bombard the approaching Confederates with cannon, and sent forward a unit of musketeers to hold the hill long enough for this to be arranged. Even with the river, only a short distance separated the two armies, and soon musketeers from both sides were engaging in a gun fight, though casualties were limited. The exchange accomplished what Ormonde and Willoughby wanted though, preventing the Irish from committing to an attack that could easily have ruined the English battle plan.
The artillery, two large culverins and four smaller pieces, were brought into place and situated all along the brow of the hill. The gunners from the two English ships defeated outside New Ross were, apparently, instrumental in their correct transport, maintenance and use throughout the battle, an advantage in experienced artillerymen that the Irish did not share. Willoughby also moved up a larger group of infantry to the centre of the hill, with cavalry on either flank.
By now a combined regiment of infantry and cavalry from the Irish side had crossed the river at the fording point, and were lining up on a small laneway leading from there to attack. The cavalry went first, seeking a quick and brutal charge that would send the English infantry scattering. Before they could make it up the hill to complete that objective, the order was given from the artillery to open fire. The attack was merciless, and the advancing cavalry was shell-shocked by the sudden salvo. Those that survived the blasts retreated pell-mell, riding straight through their own infantry that had been advancing behind them.
The English had survived the first attack, but soon Preston was sending more of his army across the river. Another cavalry charge was aimed at the centre of the English lines, with the objective of seizing the English guns, which were now pouring fire down on the rest of the Irish army. The cavalry on the English right swept in to block this attack, and soon the battle was one almost exclusively of horsemen, engaged hand to hand on the field between the English position and the river.
Willoughby was unsure what to do, with Ormonde in command well behind him. The English were outnumbered still, and if the Irish cavalry won out, their position would be fatally undermined. Trusting in the experience of his men over that of the Irish, he committed to a general attack with the forces under his personal command. He moved his infantry and what was left of his cavalry forward in formation, with the cannon firing non-stop.
The effect was electric. The Irish infantry that had already crossed the river were unable to bear the fire coming from both the artillery and the advancing infantry, and soon broke, fleeing back across the ford wholesale. Soon, what was left of the Irish cavalry was obliged to retreat as well. As Willoughby crossed the ford, the rest of Preston’s army, fearing a slaughter, broke as well, with only a small number of regiments attempting to hold their ground for any amount of time. Preston’s men fled across the Barrow to safety, destroying bridges behind them as they went. They need not have worried too much, as Ormonde’s undersupplied army, with its disadvantage in the amount of cavalry it was fielding, was not in a position to engage in the kind of pursuit that would have seriously damaged Preston’s army.
It was a victory for Ormonde, but it is important not to overstate the results. The casualties inflicted on Preston were not especially large – one English witness claims that the Irish dead numbered little more than 200. The rest of the army was able to escape unharmed. Much like the defeat of the Confederate Munster army at Liscarroll, the survivors would be able to reform and learn from their experience, though that was probably little comfort at the time, as Irish indiscipline yet again resulted in a rout.
Ormonde, as short on supplies as he had been at the start of the battle, headed home, happy to have defeated the enemy and to have an unharrassed trip back to the capital. The reaction to the victory was mixed, with plenty of recriminations from those more allied to the Parliament who had no desire to see Ormonde credited with anything. Accusations were thrown of commanders being overly-cautious, about the failure to take New Ross, and the inability to actually destroy the Leinster Army of the Confederates. Such were the divisions in Dublin at the time.
Preston, for his part, had managed to keep his army intact, but his prestige was badly damaged, any aura of him being some kind of returning saviour, banished forever. He would retain his command and fight more battles, but in his first major engagement as commander of the Leinster Army, Preston and his troops had come up short.
I’ve noticed that there is some small dispute about what this battle is called. It shouldn’t really be the “Battle of New Ross” as it is usually called, because it took place closer to Old Ross anyway and it also clashes with a more famous battle of the 1798 rebellion. Sometimes it’s just the “Battle of Ross”, but that’s not really accurate either. I’ve seen “Battle of Ballinvegga” used, but Ballinvegga, as a village, has long since ceased to exist, being little more than a townland now, so the name is rather confusing for modern researchers. I’ll stick with “New Ross” since that is what history has come to call the clash, rightly or wrongly, but it’s important to note the discrepancies that often pop up with it comes to the labelling of historical clashes, especially in a place as chockablock with small settlements as Ireland.
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